'Real Money' Secrets for Making Groceries Last Longer

Image credit: ABC News

ABC News' Amy Robach reports:

Rebecca Dickinson's food bill amounts to approximately $300 a week and more than $1,400 a month.

It's a significant bill and challenge for the wife and stay-at-home mother of two who makes breakfast, packs school lunches and cooks dinner four times a week for her family. But how much of that food goes to waste?

To find out, ABC News' "Real Money" team followed the Morristown, N.J., family for a week with cameras set up in the refrigerator and the pantry. The family's trash was even weighed to see what they bought in the grocery store, what they made for meals and what they threw away.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average U.S. household tosses out about 25 percent of food that has never been eaten - or 730 pounds of food per family a year, the National Resources Defense Council says.

Food scraps are 19 percent of what Americans put in landfills, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency 33 million tons of food went to waste in 2010.

In one week, the Dickinsons tossed 13 pounds of food, on par with the rest of the U.S. which averages tossing out 14 pounds of food. That means nearly 25 percent of the Dickinsons' food budget, or $350 a month, went into the trash.

"Holy cow," Rebecca Dickinson's husband, Jeff, said. "The calculator is going off. … It means money."

"That is pretty ridiculous," she said.

Marcus Samuelsson, a celebrity chef and owner of the Red Rooster restaurant in New York City, told ABC News that if he ran his eatery's kitchen the way most of America ran their kitchens, "We'd be closed."

"It's not good for the environment and it's not good financially," Samuelsson said.

Experts estimate that if the Dickinsons cut back on their food waste, they'd save more than $4,000 a year. Samuelsson shared the following tips he employs in his restaurant to save food and money.

1. Learn the Lingo

"When we think the food doesn't look that fresh, it probably has a couple of more days to go on it," Samuelsson said. That is because these terms - "sell by," "use by" and "best by" - don't mean toss out the food.

"Sell by" is the last day the product should be bought in the store. It can be eaten several days to a week after it's been purchased. "Use by" is the date through which the item will be considered top quality, but it too can be used days after that, if stored properly.

2. Make a Shopping List and Plan Your Plate

Samuelsson said to buy only what you need and don't get lured by 2-for-1 sales. Often, those extra products end up in the trash.

Restaurants know exactly how big portions should be so they plan accordingly.

3. Reinvent Leftovers

Leftovers that have become boring should be transformed into entirely new, exciting meals.

Samuelsson said that homemade soup found in the Dickinsons' refrigerator could be a vehicle for something else.

"The way you have to sell a menu in a restaurant, you have to sell a menu to your family as well," he said. "If you say 'We're going to have leftovers today, kids,' [that'll be] not so popular."

4. Zone Your Refrigerator

Where items are stored in the refrigerator matters. Dairy, eggs and liquids should be stored in the coldest zone: the bottom of the refrigerator. The top shelf and the doors of the refrigerator tend to be warmer so foods that don't need to be as cold should go there, Samuelsson said.